My next stop along the trail is the city of Cuenca, a colonial city which is the capital of Ecuador’s Azuay Province. The city is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its many historical buildings and sites. Unfortunately, I will not have a full week in Cuenca due to outrageous price increases in regard to accommodation for the upcoming nationwide holiday (Día de los Muertos) and the city’s Independence Day celebrations but I plan on taking advantage of three full days to see as much of the city as I can.
Arrival to Cuenca- As has become custom, I have designated Mondays as my travel days. I left my hotel in Baños at 8 AM in order to get a jumpstart on my trip to Cuenca. I arrived at the bus terminal to find out that a bus directly to Cuenca was leaving at 8:45 AM and would take 7 hours. The price was high ($10 USD) in Ecuadorian terms so I decided to take my chances and see if I could get a cheaper ticket in nearby Riobamba. I decided to pay $2 USD for a ticket to Riobamba and had to go wait on the side of the road to hop on a passing bus. The trip to Riobamba took about an hour and 45 minutes and I arrived in the Riobamba bus terminal at about 10:30 AM. Fortunately, there was a bus going to Cuenca at 11 AM which gave me extra time to charge my cellphone. However, the ticket cost $8 USD which would have equaled the price had I just chosen to take the bus in Baños. Nevertheless, I was on my way at 11 AM on a fairly comfortable bus with very few other passengers. The trip itself took about 6 hours as we passed through mountains and stopped in several smaller cities (i.e. Cañar, Azogues). However, as we were rolling into Cuenca, I couldn’t help but notice how lush and green the city was even compared to places like Baños and Mindo. The city was very clean and even the local houses had a unique colonial character to them. I arrived at the bus terminal at 5 PM and after charging my cell phone for about 10 minutes, I hopped into a cab and made my way to my hotel near the central square ready to explore the city.
Cuenca Walking Tour- As has become custom, the first thing I do when arriving in a new city is take advantage of the “free” walking tours. After some research, I made a reservation with Free Walking Tour Cuenca which offered tours twice a day (11 AM and 3 PM). I chose the 11AM tour and while I did not receive a confirmation email, there were instructions provided one the companies website on where to meet. I met the tour guide, Mica, in a plaza next to the city’s modern cathedral. She was standing with a couple. While I always book the tours in English, as it is my first language, I’ve come to figure out that most of these tours will always be done in Spanish given that most of the tourists are from Spanish speaking countries (If you don’t speak Spanish, then you can insist on an English tour). This time was no exception as the other couple did not speak English, so the tour was done in Spanish for simplicity. While the tour followed the same format as the other tours I’ve done, I though Mica did a good job at highlighting some of the unique facts as it relates to Cuenca such as the stories behind the city’s monuments and building, the isolated life of the nuns of the Monasterio de las Conceptas, and the importance of religion in Ecuadorian society. We also toured the gigantic new cathedral as we arrived right before the start of mid-day mass. We then made are way to the traditional marketplace where Mica recommended us several local dishes to come back and try. We ended the 2 hour tour at a lookout above La Universidad de Cuenca where I was able to get an excellent view of the city landscape. Overall, I enjoyed the tour and I thought Mica was pretty cute so there is extra points for that.
El Parque Nacional Cajas- Cuenca’s biggest attraction was actually not located in the city itself. El Parque Nacional Cajas is a vast national park located about 45 minutes northwest along the highway which connects Cuenca with Guayaquil. Only having a couple of days in the city, I wanted to make sure I took advantage of the opportunity to explore it. I chose to go on a Wednesday. I woke up about 630 AM and took a taxi to the bus terminal. Even though the taxi ride supposedly cost $1.20 the driver cited a “$1.50” minimum fare which was no where to be found. Having take a few taxis before in the city, I had not run into such rule. I called him out on it but ultimately decided .30 cents wasn’t worth any more of my time. I arrived at the terminal and got various answers on how to catch the bus to Cajas. I was finally able to find the right driver and hopped on the bus right before it left at 8AM. The trip took about and hour and cost $2 USD. However, I was dropped off right in front of the ranger station that I was required to register at. I was immediately greeted by the giant lake I had seen in the reviews. Not surprisingly, it was a lot more chilly in the park than back in Cuenca. Although I had heard a passport was required (I only had a picture of it on my phone), the lady at the station never asked for it and just had me type my information in the computer. More importantly, there was no cost to enter the park. Exploring the park was a “choose your own adventure” as there were about 10 different trails of varying difficulty and time. Not wanting to hike for 9 hours, I chose Ruta 1 which I had thought was only a 3.5 hour hike based on what I had read on the sign. Much to my surprise, after walking about 1.5 km to the first sign, I found out it was actually a 5 hour and 50 minute hike (it had 29 different stopping points along the trail). I still decided to go along that trail until I felt like turning around. While the trail itself provided many picturesque moments and was not physically difficult, the path was extremely muddy which made slipping a continuous possibility (I actually slipped pretty bad on my way back up). I ended up hiking for an about an hour and a half and got to “Point 8” of the trail where I was able to take a picture of another small lagoon and a small waterfall before heading back to the ranger station. I turned back because I was tired, hungry, and pretty bored of the views at that point. However, I could definitely tell why Cajas is a must-see for those passing through Cuenca, especially those who are a fan of the outdoors. It took me about an hour to get back to the ranger station and another 20 minutes to catch a passing bus back to Cuenca. Although I didn’t even do half of one of the shorter trails, I still spent a solid 5 hours at the park.
After a pleasant week in Quito, I headed about 4 hours south to the town of Baños. In Spanish the word “baños” translates to “baths” as the town is known for its various thermal hot springs. Baños is extremely popular with both locals and tourists because the area is filled with a plethora of things to do whether it involves hiking up to waterfalls or biking the 60km trail to nearby Puyo.
Arrival to Baños- I left my hotel in Quito at about 9AM on Monday morning. Fortunately, there was a bus stop right outside my hotel in Santo Domingo Plaza which went straight to La Terminal Quitumbe located south of the city. Instead of paying $9 USD for an Uber or taxi, it only cost me .35 cents for the 40 minute trip. Quitumbe was the exact opposite of La Terminal Ofelia, the terminal in the north of the city in which I arrived to Quito from Cayambe. Instead of being small and run down, Quitumbe was large, modern, and fairly clean. In addition, there were windows for buses that went all over Ecuador. I found an open window that had a bus going to Baños and paid $4.50 USD for a ticket. The next bus happened to be leaving about 5 minutes after I arrived so I had to literally run to catch it. The bus was large and comfortable. Combined with the fact that there were only 10 other people on it, I was able to stretch my legs out for the comfortable 4 hour trip from Quito to Baños. I arrived in Baños at about 1 PM and was dropped off at the town’s miniscule bus terminal. I ended up walking around for 20 minutes because I put the wrong name in Google Maps for my hotel. My first impression of Baños was that it was a walkable town which was big enough to cater to tourists but small enough not to be overwhelmed with traffic and chaos. There were several souvenir shops and restaurants that lined the 6 block radius of the central area. When I finally found the hotel, it was locked and I had to call the owner. It turns out that his brother had gone to the store and I had to wait about 10 minutes for him to return. The room turned out to be really nice for the price that I was paying; however, about 5 minutes after settling in, the wooden frame of by bed had cracked. The owner’s brother attempted to fix it, but it broke again shortly after. Fortunately, it really didn’t seem to effect my sleep that first night. The wife of the owner’s brother also made soup in which she allowed me to try. It turned out to be pretty tasty considering how hungry I was at the time. That night, I went ahead and made reservations for a few activities in which I will discuss in subsequent write-ups.
Mirador “La Virgen”- One of the first things I did after settling into Baños was take the 45 minute hike up to Mirador de La Virgen or “the Virgin Lookout”. Using the map that I got from the tourism office, I set off at about 11AM on Tuesday. I initially had trouble finding the entrance as the map was not exactly made to scale, but after about 10 minutes of walking around, I spotted the stairway in the neighborhood behind the hospital. The path up to the lookout point was about 90% stairs with small patches of dirt trail in between. The hike was not physically difficult, but every time I thought I was done, I would see dozens of more stairs which was mentally draining. For the most part, the stairs were accompanied by cement handrails which proved to be useful as the path became steeper the higher I went. After about a half an hour Stairmaster workout, I arrived at a deteriorating statute of the Virgin Mary. The top was extremely windy to the point I was worried my phone would fly out of my hands whilst I was taking pictures. The view of Baños was decent enough to be rewarded for my effort, though I’m sure there are much better views in the area. I was the only person there until a Swedish guy had come down from above. He turned out to be pretty weird as he stood right next to (almost in my personal space) and just stared at me until I broke the silence and asked his name. After about 5 minutes of extremely forced conversation, he continued down the stairs. The path actually continued to another local attraction, La Casa del Arbol, but getting there required another 3-4 hours of scaling the increasingly steep hill which I had no interest in doing. Although there were no benches at the top, I sat on the stairs for about 10 minutes getting bathed by the breeze before heading down. Considering that this activity only requires time and effort, I would say it is something worth doing if one has free time in Baños
La Ruta de Las Cascadas- One of the pleasant surprises that I encountered during my stay in Baños was the opportunity to do a 60 km (38 mile) bike ride to Puyol known as La Ruta de Las Cascadas (or Route of the Waterfalls). In 2015, while living in South Korea, I got the opportunity to do ride 500 miles across various rivers of the Korean Peninsula over the course of several weeks, thus I couldn’t pass up this experience. I rented a bike on Wednesday morning from my hotel for $7 USD. Unfortunately, I had to delay the start of my trip by an hour because of the weather. I eventually left the hotel at about 9AM after the owner was kind enough to provide me a rain jacket. After riding through town, I eventually found myself on the main road. The first hour or so consisted of me getting use to riding on the highway while dealing with the rain and Ecuadorian traffic. While there were signs telling motorists to “share the highway” , most cars were still passing me at about 50-60 miles per hour. The first part of the trail was mostly downhill and fortunately my bike had decent brakes so I wouldn’t skid off the side of the mountain. I arrived at the first waterfall about 15 kilometers into the journey. While I could see it from the road, I (along with my bike) was able to take a sketchy looking tram across the valley for $2 USD. Despite the wind rocking it back and forth, I was able to take some great pictures during the 4 minute ride. Once I arrived at the other side, I chained my bike to the fence and walked down a man-made to the foot of the waterfall. The walk took about 10 minutes before I arrived at a locked gate. Had it been open, I would have had to pay another $1 to get to the base of the waterfall. Fortunately, there was a bridge that allowed me to get pretty nice shots of the waterfall from where I was at. After taking the pictures, it took me 20 minutes to get back to the highway across the valley. I had also discovered that I had only gone 20 kilometers in 2 hours. It was at that point; I was more worried about finishing at a reasonable time than sightseeing. For the next 2 hours, I passed a combination of tunnels, bridges, and small towns (usually in that order). Although the beginning of the trail was mostly downhill, that changed once I passed Rio Negro. Not only did it start to rain, but I found myself pushing a rickety 3-speed bike up 3 different mountains with cars, trucks, and buses flying past me at ridiculous rates of speed. It was at that point I started to question what the hell I was doing. Things got better about 3 hours in when I got to the Amazon lookout near to entrance of Mera. While the views were pretty good along the way, I could tell that environmental degradation had taken its toll on the local landscape. While physical challenging, the ride presented more of a mental obstacle given that I was riding almost 40 miles in rural Ecuador. While several buses passed that I could have easily gotten on, I was determined to complete the ride. I finally arrived in Puyol at about 1:45 PM. While Puyol itself was far from impressive, I was glad to have completed my goal in a reasonable timeframe. After getting a quick snack, I rode straight to the bus terminal in the center of the city and paid $3 USD to take an hour long journey back to Baños. In the end, I didn’t really find the trail physically difficult. However, the weather and road conditions kept the ride from being as leisurely as I wanted it to be.
Las Piscinas de la Virgen- A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the cities numerous hot springs, given that the city is named for them. It was rather convenient that my body extremely sore from doing the 60 kilometer La Ruta de la Cascada bike ride the day before. The most popular (and cheapest) hot spring is Las Piscinas de la Virgen, or Las Termas, in the outskirts of the city. There were actually two facilities, the original one that is directly under the Cascada Virgen and a newer facility across the street. In order to get the more authentic (and cheaper experience) I opted for the original one. I decided to go midmorning on a Thursday when I figured it would be semi empty. After paying the $2 USD entrance fee I walked up to the main pool area. My first impression was that the facility reminded me of a rundown YMCA club one would find in the United States. There were three distinct pools (scalding, warm, ice cold). There was a place were I could store my bag for free while in the pool where I was given a key chain with a number to recover it later on. After changing into my swimming trunks and taking the required shower, I made my way to the pools. While there weren’t many people, I could count on my right hand the number that were under 50 years old. As for the quality of the pools themselves, they were dingy as the water was coffee brown. While the pools are drained daily, I avoided put my face in the water for obvious reasons. Despite the lack of cleanliness, each pool was the appropriate temperature and I had space to relax as most people hung out in the “warm” pool. Given the size of the pools, there was really nothing else to do but sit in one place and relax while staring at the waterfall. For the best experience, I spent a few minutes in the ice cold pool and then went over to the scalding one. I spent about an hour in the pools before calling it a day. However, my body felt much better after experiencing the natural remedy. Outside the facility was a nice little park where one could spend a few minutes. I would say the experience was worth the $2 USD, however I also visited the pools at an optimal time as the experience would have been drastically different had I decided to go on a weekend when all of them are filled to capacity.
Puyopongo Jungle- Normally I avoid packaged tours, but the owner of my hotel offered me a deal for an all-day tour of the Puyopongo Jungle for only $30 USD. I figured it is was good value and would give me something to do on a Friday. After being picked up at 9 AM from my hotel by one of the locals in his sedan, I was dropped off at the corner where I was picked up by a passing bus. I was provided a pair of boots as I got on the bus and took a seat amongst the 13 other people who had already been picked up. The tour group consisted of mostly Ecuadorians with three women from Chile. We drove towards Puyo before stopping at the same lookout I visited during my bike ride earlier in the week. At the lookout, I bought 3 tangerines for .75 cents. The driver took us about 30 minutes north of Puyo where the Puyopono Jungle was located. We stopped right outside a village and got into a canoe where we were taken 10 kilometers down the Pastaza River. While it was a nice trip, I wasn’t blown away as I have many canoe trips during my travels. When we got off the boats, a local woman gave us samples of her “Amazon Whiskey” which didn’t taste that great (although I’m not the best judge of quality alcohol). After the sampling, we were driven to the base of a lookout point where we did a 10 minute hike up to a restaurant that was in the middle of being constructed. However, it provided an excellent view of surrounding jungle. We then were able to try out a rope swing which allowed us to literally swing over the valley. I found it to be quite an adrenaline rush and memorable experience worth the price of the tour by itself. After being provided a basic plate lunch, the group hiked to a nice waterfall deep in the jungle. The hike really wasn’t that difficult (the boots were definitely useful) but the three Chilean women weren’t really in great shape so it took us over an hour to finally reach the waterfall as the group had to constantly take breaks. Given that it had just rained, the waterfall was pretty impressive and the water was clear (although cold). We swam for about a half an hour before making our way back to the bus. About an hour later we were on our way to the last stop, the local village where we took the canoes that morning. We went inside the village where the local children performed a local dance and painted our faces. I ended up buying the kids some cheap cookies and giving them the two tangerines that I had left from that morning. I also got the chance to shoot a tribal blowgun and try some mysterious Yuca based concoction. After visiting the village, we made the nearly 2-hour trip back to Baños arriving at about 8PM after nearly 12-hour day. Overall, although the tour was your stereotypical tourist experience, I felt that the quantity and quality of the activities made it worth the $30 USD that I paid.